In the very early days of lockdown, I saw a rather melancholy mother tweet that her young daughter was not going to be able to have much of a birthday party. Twitter showed its magnificent side and rose as one, sending hundreds of lovely birthday messages and pictures. I sent a picture of the red mare, because the red mare makes everything better. The whole thing was very moving and rather uplifting.
Today, it was the eighth birthday of my young friend Sophie. I knew from her mum that the birthday girl was extremely upset that she could not see her granny or her cousins or her friends. So I wondered whether I could send out a similar call to arms for her.
Her mum is on Facebook, so I asked all my Facebook friends if they might post a picture of their animals to cheer Sophie up. (She has a passion for animals.) Quite frankly, I thought this could end in terrible anti-climax. I suspected it might have been the kind of thing that had novelty value at the beginning of this crisis, but may now seem old hat. I imagined that people had had many such requests, and would be deep into virtual birthday fatigue. I envisaged two blurry photographs of a rabbit and one of a dyspeptic poodle. The possibilities for bathos were endless.
I should have had more faith. My brilliant crew rose to the challenge. Some of them I know in life; most of them are strangers to me, people I’ve connected with only in the online world, people who live half-way across the globe, people I shall probably never meet face to face. But the kindness of strangers is one of the things I love about the internet, and it came out on this sunny Sunday in all its undaunted glory.
There were mules from Ireland and ponies from New Zealand. There were livestock guardian dogs from Canada. (I became rather obsessed with the livestock guardian dogs. They live gently amongst flocks of sheep and protect them from predators.) There were canines of all shapes and sizes, from Yorkshire and Massachusetts and Victoria, Australia. There were horses, of course, from all over, and ponies too – dreaming and rolling and jumping and wearing special party outfits and cuddling with their small humans. There were some extremely splendid cats.
I felt rather overwhelmed at the kindness, and a bit weepy. I rang Sophie’s mum. ‘Have you seen them all?’ I said.
‘We’re giggling at them now,’ she said. ‘They’ve really cheered her up.’
This was so beautiful and so pure and so much of the heart that I don’t even want to talk about the news in the real world. The headline story today was of hypocrisy, and it made me feel furious and powerless.
I remembered what my wise friend in Wales says about uncomfortable emotions. I looked my impotent rage in the face. It stared back at me, crossly. I asked whether it was useful. No, it was not. It was not going to dissolve the hypocrisy with its bare hands. It was just swirling about in my gut, playing havoc with my nervous system.
So I tried my new technique. (There are going to be many, many uncomfortable and overwhelming emotions before this thing is over, so I reckon I’d better have a technique that works. I need a sodding great toolbox, with some serious tools in it.)
I marked the fury. I called it by its name. I thanked it for coming. And then I let it go.
This sounds both faintly simplistic and definitely superwoo. But it does appear to work. I adore things that work. I don’t care if they sound flaky; if they do their job, I love and cherish them.
I do a lot of standing and breathing and being present with my horses. This can sound a bit nuts, too. (Most people are doing polework and transitions and actual schooling.) But all that focus and mindfulness and connection has done something ridiculously practical: it has improved our canter. My speedy, zoomy little thoroughbred, who used to feel like a Ferrari with the choke out, now glides up our Scottish hills on a loose rein, smooth as silk. So I’ll take a bit of absurdity if I get that feeling of flying. That’s a good trade.
It’s the work I’ve done with the horses which is helping me now. They’ve taught me patience and letting go. They are especially brilliant at teaching me not to fall into the chasm of false or dangerous expectations. They’ve shown me the power of stepping back, literally and metaphorically.
I think everyone needs all the help they can get, right now. I think we baffled and beleaguered humans are going to need many, many tools in that vital toolbox. The fact that I get some of my most potent tools from two thoroughbred mares who had to be retired from racing because they couldn’t win a race to save their lives makes me smile. And anything that makes me smile is precious.